Aerospace engineer turned conservation technologist

Aerospace engineer turned conservation technologist

As a kayaker and avid nature lover, I’ve always struggled with combining my kayaking life (whitewater) with my engineering life (mechanical engineer). Then, I heard this podcast about Conservation Technology and realized that there’s more to life than just working 9-5 for a big engineering firm (i.e. like saving rivers while also kayaking them? Sounds great!).

What is conservation technology?

The field of conservation technology
is basically when technologists, engineers, and physical scientists
cross over into the field of conservation (and most probably take a
severe pay cut) and apply their technical knowledge and expertise to
real-world environmental problems.

There are several examples of technologists doing this type of work, like Rainforest Connection, who are creating bio-acoustic monitoring systems to prevent illegal deforestation and animal poaching in real-time (they’re basically hanging smartphones in the Amazon and monitoring the natural -and unnatural- frequencies of the rainforest). Or Conservation X Labs, who have several projects in the field of ocean conservation, one of which is a DNA Barcode Scanner: a low-cost, hand-held, field-ready, automated tool to validate the identity of a wildlife or food product to reduce the amount of wildlife products that are trafficked illegally (which are often disguised in processed form). And Wildbook for Whale Sharks, which is a photo-identification library and visual database of whale sharks, where they’re creating pattern-recognition software to identify each shark based on their skin spot/scar pattern from photographs.

 

 

Jess at the Swiss Boater-X Championships in 2018

Why apply Conservation Tech to the Balkans?

The Balkan rivers are a hotspot of ecological value but are being threatened by the construction of thousands of hydropower dams. The reckless construction of hydropower has a chance to be stopped if these rivers are shown to have high ecological value. However, there is a significant lack of such data in the Balkans. This creates an opportunity for technologists to create cheap measurement systems to enable the collection of important ecological data which would otherwise need expensive laboratory equipment or sensors to obtain.

How to apply Conservation Tech to the Balkans?

I’m no natural scientist, so figuring
out what kind of data would be useful in order to protect the Balkan
rivers was definitely a big challenge for me. I spoke to several
biologists and geologists and finally landed on one parameter that I
could focus on: sediment transport. Suspended sediment data in rivers is
extremely difficult and expensive to obtain with current technology,
and there is a need for affordable and sufficiently accurate water
turbidity sensing (water turbidity leads to suspended sediment data) for
a range of environmental applications. For example, the Vjosa, a river
stretching from Greece to the Adriatic Sea, is a large sediment-laden
river. If dammed, it is most probable that this sediment would build-up
behind the dam, therefore decreasing the reservoir volume and the
production capacity of the hydropower plant (HPP). Additionally, the
river bed would degrade (causing groundwater levels to drop and
disconnecting the river from its floodplain), gravel would erode (with
it, spawning areas for many fish species could disappear), and also
beaches and wetlands created by the interplay of river flow and sea
currents would erode (destroying valuable habitats for fresh and
saltwater species alike). These are just some examples of possible
detrimental effects a seemingly “harmless dam” can have on an ecosystem
that desperately depends on constantly flowing water.

As part of the River Intellectuals
network, I am creating a project that aims to develop a smart turbidity
sensor with end-to-end integration from data to user. Additionally, I
will create a website which will host an open-sourced sensor creation
manual and which will act as a data collection hub, presenting results
obtained from citizen scientists using the sensors across the world.

Some
of the River Intellectuals team at the Balkan River Tour 4 in Romania
this Spring. The sign reads “Save the Basca Mare,” a river in Romania
with a dam being built on it.

The new highly-resolved measurements
will be used to address questions of where and how fine sediment is
produced and distributed along the Vjosa River in Albania. This project
lays a foundation to expand to other Balkan rivers and other global
environmental applications in the future, such as agriculture, soil
erosion, lake monitoring, and ecological studies.

If you have some technical skills and would also like to join the River Intellectuals network, you can shoot me an email at jess@rivercollective.org.
You can also email me if you have a generic question about conservation
tech, or if you have a cool project idea and need some guidance.

– Jess Droujko